His helmet hung heavy in his right hand. Jacoby Brissett looked like he could barely lift his feet as he trudged off the field, a trainer at his side, limping slightly after cramping up in the fourth quarter. The N.C. State quarterback was spent, lifting his head to look into the stands one last time before disappearing into the tunnel.
Brissett gave everything he had. So did the Wolfpack. It still wasn’t enough to pull off yet another upset of Florida State. The top-ranked Seminoles might not be the team they were a year ago, but they’re still better than N.C. State is now, good enough to bounce back from an early 17-point deficit to win 56-41.
If the best-case scenario for the Wolfpack against No. 1 Florida State was to make it a game into the fourth quarter, to have a chance, that much was achieved. But right about the time the sun started slipping behind the west stands at Carter-Finley Stadium, the Seminoles stole away from the weary Wolfpack in the gathering darkness.
“Those guys are going to limp onto their plane and fly home,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “They won. Good for them. They beat us. It was a physical football game. We played hard. We just didn’t make enough plays at the end of the game.”
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The Wolfpack didn’t have any trouble making plays at the beginning. A year after falling behind 35-0 in the first quarter in Tallahassee, the eventual national champions steamrolling N.C. State without so much as a hiccup, the Wolfpack ran out to a 24-7 first-quarter lead Saturday, scoring on the second play of the game.
Brissett matched – and at times outplayed – Jameis Winston, deftly eluding the Florida State pass rush time and time again, most notably on one touchdown pass that might go down as the play of the year in the ACC. Late in the first quarter, Brissett shook one Florida State defender off his neck in the pocket, shed another as he scrambled to the right and heaved a pass in the direction of Johnathan Alston in the back of the end zone. Touchdown, 17-point lead and thousands of mouths agape.
And yet it was too much to ask, perhaps too soon, of this team. The Seminoles, a shadow of last year’s dominant squad, were still deeper than N.C. State, still have Winston and Rashad Greene. They wore down the Wolfpack on both sides of the ball, grinding away until N.C. State could offer little resistance at the end, outscoring the Wolfpack 35-17 in the second half.
“If we play a better second half, we win that game,” N.C. State defensive end Mike Rose said.
Florida State’s victory – the Seminoles’ second narrow escape in as many weeks – saved some face for the ACC on a day when Pittsburgh lost to Akron and Boston College lost to Colorado State, both at home. Losing the league’s best national-title contender as well would have been a crushing blow for the conference.
This will not be a crushing blow for N.C. State. The Wolfpack will kick itself for failing to finish the job, but the performance in many ways certified a 4-0 start against dubious opposition – and established Brissett as a bona fide star beyond any doubt.
“Things like this can make you great,” N.C. State running back Shadrach Thornton said. “The feeling of losing a game like this, against a team like that, is devastating.”
N.C. State went the distance with Florida State and fell short. Both teams limped off, one the victor, the other the validated.